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Musical fireworks at Green Music Center debut


The new Weill Hall at Sonoma State University made its formal debut on Saturday night with a sparkling recital by one of classical music's rock stars, Chinese pianist Lang Lang, followed by an explosive fireworks show under a harvest moon.

The performance by Lang Lang, whose name means "brilliance of the sky" in Chinese, kicked off the grand opening weekend at the Green Music Center, where three more concerts are scheduled to take place from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. today.

Before the concert, SSU President Ruben Armi?na and the hall's namesake donor, financier Sandy Weill, welcomed a crowd of 3,400 to the concert hall that took more than 15 years of dogged fundraising and campus controversy before finally opening its doors.

"The bringing together of education, music and performance has been at the core of this project," Armi?na said, thanking his wife, Marne Olson, and the center's more than 1,800 investors and donors. "World-class spaces facilitate and inspire world-class education."

"This is a very exciting moment for all of us," Weill said, pointing to the harvest moon as a lucky sign. "To see a music center like this ... will make the university known all over the world."

Santa Rosa Symphony Music Director Bruno Ferrandis, who has been rehearsing the symphony all week in preparation for their concert at 2 p.m. today, waxed rhapsodic about the acoustics of the hall, which will serve as the symphony's new home.

"We are working very hard, but with thrilling sound results," he said. "It's such a change."

Guests at the pre-concert reception held in the Prelude restaurant adjacent to the hall were abuzz with excitement about the look and feel of the $145 million music center. Based on the Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, the 1,400 seat concert hall boasts a back door that opens to seating for an additional 5,000 people outdoors, including tables set up on terraces. The hall was designed by architect William Rawn Associates and acoustician Kirkegaard Associates.

"It's stunning," said Jennifer Webley of Santa Rosa, who donated $2.1 million to the center with her husband, telecommunications entrepreneur John Webley. "It's absolutely lovely, and all the better to be full of people."

"The space is really unique for Sonoma County," said Richard Sweet of Santa Rosa, who donated a 6-foot Steinway to the Green Music Center's education wing. "It's very organic and warm. It's calming, and it transports you to a different place."

Outdoors on the South Lawn, guests at tables and on lawn chairs enjoyed picnics and bottles of wine under sunny skies and near-perfect weather in the high 70s.

"It's gorgeous," said Rebecca Leonard of Petaluma, while sipping some Sonoma County cabernet with a ham and roast beef sandwich from Petaluma Market. "You would never know you're on the campus."

At intermission, after temperatures had dipped, blankets and down parkas were popular attire outdoors. Gary McLaughlin of Healdsburg had a front-row seat at a table just outside the rear doors of the hall, where two giant video screens projected images from the stage.

"The amplification is subtle enough that it doesn't feel like amplification," he said. "And the video is nice, because I'm seeing four or five different angles."

After Saturday night's recital, a gala fireworks show was held just north of the hall, with a pre-recorded music track. But the most brilliant colors of the evening came from the 30-year-old Lang Lang, an energetic showman with a brilliant musical mind, who was chosen to open the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

"I adore Lang Lang," said Nicki Bell, a pianist from Sebastopol. "His Mozart is exquisite, and he's not just a showman."

Dressed in a simple, understated suit, Lang Lang performed three Mozart sonatas in the first half of the program with poetic delicacy, eyes bulging, elbows up and lips creased in an ecstatic smile.

"You'll notice that it's possible to play softly and yet very vibrantly," said pianist Norma Brown, wife of Santa Rosa Symphony Conductor Emeritus Corrick Brown, who helped raise money for the center. "And there's a full sound in the Chopin Ballades, so it will contrast."

The pianist took the hall for a test drive back in January 2011, at the behest of banking magnate Weill and his wife Joan, who donated $12 million to complete the hall in March 2011.

"It's a long time coming, and sometimes it's hard to believe that it's really here," said Alan Silow, executive director of the Santa Rosa Symphony. "But the wait is over."